Skip to main content

"Lean" manufacturing has been deemed one of the most popular and effective ways to improve the efficiency and profitability of a manufacturing process. This philosophy uses a strategy to eliminate seven forms of waste. This set of tools assists in the identification and steady elimination of waste throughout each step of the manufacturing process. Waste is anything that does not add value to the production process. As waste is eliminated, quality improves, production time diminishes, and costs are reduced.

There are pros and cons to any subsystem-based approach that seeks to maximize efficiency and improve overall profitability. Evaluating the systemwide manufacturing landscape and the physics in play can help determine whether lean manufacturing is right for your business and where it may fit within your business.


Pros of Lean: Reduces Excessive Waste in Some Processes

If the second law of thermodynamics didn’t exist, the tenants of lean would work every time. Ideally, your manufacturing system would produce the exact amount of product as your consumers want to purchase. This product would travel, without delay or storage, to distribution channels and reach the consumer, creating a perfect flow from production to sale without any hiccups. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t work that way and the entropy rule guarantees it. It’s actually physically impossible to eliminate all waste.


Ideal Lean Situations

Lean works in many processes—especially in labor-intensive processes where operators primarily drive the cycle through use of low intensity capital equipment. This is an ideal environment for lean because, although there is more cycle-to-cycle variation from human beings than machines, this variation falls within a smaller bracket of time intervals. However, the cycle time can (and does) become enormous when the machine beaks down or goes into changeover. When a cycle time is primarily human dependent, a human can turn up the speed of a slower cycle in order to catch up. Most machines don’t have this smart capability. With humans possessing these key advantages over machine-based processes, they have the innate ability to wash out the effects of series-based statistical fluctuation. This is why lean works so well in highly manual, series-based processes.

Delays occur in all steps of a system—from supply sourcing through the manufacturing process to warehousing and shipping. When humans drive the majority of the decision points in an environment where changeover impact is small and breakdowns are almost non-existent, lean is almost always the best approach.


Lean Implementation

Lean implementation focuses on the importance of optimizing workflow using strategic operational procedures while minimizing waste and adapting to changing production needs. The goal is to reduce waste caused by non-value adding work, overburden, and unevenness in the system. To this end, many of the production manufacturing delays can be mitigated by keeping the capital low and the human factor high.

Machines can be adjusted to run faster or slower, but this consumes time. On the other hand, humans can adapt on the fly and instantaneously, in turn limiting wasted time while adapting to stay on track.

The Bottom Line

Lean manufacturing can be effective, but only when used in the appropriate environment.


Cons of Lean: Anorexia & Death by Physics

Anytime we’re called into a crisis situation at a business and we hear, “We have a very lean structure,” I know they’re in serious trouble!


Too Skinny

The point of lean really isn’t lean at all. The focus is to remove excess body fat and condition the organism (organization) to be in optimal health (FIT) to make the greatest amount of money. In almost all instances, lean is associated with cutting cost. Lean may be appropriate if the organization is 50 pounds overweight, however, too often we run into lean fanatics who put an organization on a weight loss program when it’s already 20 pounds underweight and starving to death.

Winning in business is like training for then running a marathon. It takes dedication, hard work, a disciplined regiment, a will to win, and one more thing—CALORIES! You can’t train for and win the marathon on a 500-calorie per day diet. Without enough calories, an organization will wither and eventually die. Remember, to stay in peak health, you need to focus on FIT-ness instead of LEAN-ness! 


Wrong Environment

Another pitfall of lean is when the environmental physics are not conducive for lean. In highly capital-intensive environments where going off cycle can be counted in hours or even days, then the theory of constraints (TOC) and the physics of dependency quickly begin to dominate. It’s at this point that the more economical approach may be to add buffers rather than attempt to capitalize your way out of the variation. The key is to determine which approach yields the most profit.


The Bottom Line

Make sure you know when and where lean philosophy works and apply it to those situations.  Almost all things are good in moderation. Avoid becoming a lean fanatic who eventually leads an organization to death by starvation.


Is Lean Manufacturing Right for You?

At Cornerstone, we have some of the best lean consultants in the business. They know where, when, and how to apply lean so it works to make your organization more profitable.

Many lean consulting firms lead you down the path to failure with good intentions every step of the way. At Cornerstone, we travel the right and profitable path and can help you determine whether your business might benefit from implementing these tools to improve the efficiency of your production system. Contact Cornerstone Consulting Organization today to learn more about lean manufacturing and if it’s right for your business.

Schedule a Free Consultation

CCO cannot and does not provide legal advice. It’s important to consult with qualified counsel before adopting any new policies. It’s also your responsibility to determine whether legal review of work product is necessary prior to implementation.